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Driving the Ford GT, America's fastest supercar

Learning to drive a racetrack in a historic car for the super rich

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Announced in 2015 to a wildly positive response, the 2017 Ford GT is the second resurrection of the GT40, the car that captured the first win for Ford (and the United States) in one of the most prestigious races in the world: the 24 Hours of Le Mans. This new GT was supposed to honor that 1966 accomplishment in a way that the 2005 reincarnation never did — by being both an amazing supercar on the road, while also giving Ford the chance to return to victory lane on the track. Last summer, on the 50th anniversary of that historic first win, Ford fulfilled half of that goal by coming home first in its class at Le Mans.

Now, the new GT is finally starting to make it to the first few garages of a very short list of owners. Ford will build 250 GTs per year, and will cease production at 1,000 units. Each prospective owner had to apply to buy the car — which starts at $450,000. To commemorate all of this spectacle, the company held an event at Utah Motorsports Campus — the home of the Ford Performance Racing School — where we were offered the rare chance to drive the road version of the company’s newest Le Mans-winning supercar.

Even if you have the money, you’ll probably never own this historic supercar

I’m a lifelong motorsports fan, but I’ve never driven on a track. So instead of hopping right into a half-million-dollar supercar, I had Ford slot me into the day-long program that it puts on for new owners of the 2017 Ford Mustang Shelby GT350.

The rare chance of driving the GT had blinded me from one key detail, though. It wasn’t until the night before the Mustang drive that I realized Ford hasn’t made a GT350 with an automatic transmission. That would be a problem.

It’s not that I don’t know how to drive stick. In fact, the first time I ever drove a stick shift was in a mall parking lot about 11 years ago. The problem is that the last time I ever drove a stick shift was also in a mall parking lot 11 years ago.

So before I drove the Ford GT, I had to learn to drive stick from scratch. In a 526-horsepower Mustang GT350. On a race track.

And did I mention it was snowing? No pressure.

The first half of my performance driving day was supposed to be spent learning the basics of racing (like the definition of increasing and decreasing radius turns, or the difference between an early or late apex) before easing my way through in-car lessons. Then, I’d be out on on the track for a few full-on 20-minute hot lap sessions.

But I couldn’t do any of that until I figured out how to handle the manual transmission. The clutch, in particular, was my nemesis. It was the clutch of the 1999 Hyundai Accent (with no power steering, mind you) which flustered me that night in the empty lot of Long Island’s Roosevelt Field Mall, and it was what caused me to stall the Mustang repeatedly this time around in Utah.

Photo by Jeremy Henrie / Ford
Photo by Jeremy Henrie / Ford

It wasn’t the clutch pedal’s fault. I had a hard time figuring out the balance between easing off the clutch while rolling into the gas when I first learned to drive stick, and that problem compounded now that I was also expected to wheel a performance car around Utah Motorsports Campus. It also didn’t help that, for most of my life, manual cars were completely avoidable; to me, they were nothing but objects for enthusiasts.

When I finally keyed in on the right spot to plant my heel — about as close to the back of the floor as the clutch would allow — I stopped making a fool of myself and was actually able to process the things the instructors told us. I became familiar with the amount of braking and the technique needed to properly enter a corner. I was having fun, and I was keeping pace with or outperforming the other people on the track who actually knew what they were doing.

I still stalled the Mustang a dozen times, sure. But after a handful of lessons and track sessions, I felt weirdly comfortable driving a manual transmission. Even weirder, I felt ready for my first supercar drive.

No matter how badly you want to climb into the GT and go, the car’s design basically demands genuflection before you do. Up close, the Ford GT’s exterior design is a study in contrast. Each angle — and there are many — carries the purpose of increasing aerodynamic performance. But they also make the GT a dizzying sight to behold. Convention center displays do not do this car justice. The GT’s stunning visual form simply comes alive at a track.

Even Chris Svensson, who worked on the GT and is the design director for the Americas at Ford, spent a healthy portion of the morning down on one knee taking pictures with his phone. “It's just insane, even though I've seen it for the last three years,” he said with a shake of his head.

Even the GT’s designers couldn’t stop gaping

Svensson has worked on everything from the GT350 Mustang to the F150 Raptor. But speaking about the supercar the night before at a small reception for press and Ford employees, he admitted that the GT is a designer’s dream job. “It was an opportunity for my career to do something quite special,” Svensson said.

For Ford Performance employees, the legendary GT40 represents the pinnacle of its racing program. It still carries weight that the new GT’s ancestor was what helped Ford edge out Ferrari — the most dominant manufacturer at the time, which Henry Ford II had unsuccessfully tried to buy — to win that Le Mans title 50 years ago.

That history, and the alluring supercar lines that the GT40 established, are why people like Svensson became car designers in the first place. At a company like Ford, which now more than ever is under pressure to focus on future-facing ideas like autonomy and mobility, opportunities like this don’t come along very often.

For this reason, members of the team that gave life to the new GT love making the car’s development sound mythic. There’s good reason for that. Called Project Silver, the original goal was to make a Mustang that could compete at Le Mans in 2016 to mark the anniversary of Ford’s first win. But when executives rejected the idea, Svensson and Derek Bier (engineer and manager of the new GT team) decided to push on without telling anyone.

“We were fearful if it got out to certain executives within the company they’d put a halt on it immediately,” Svensson said. “So we identified a key team of about 12 people, we found a space in a basement that used to be a studio that was being used as a storage room. We cleared it out and re-created a studio in the basement and then we started working down there.”

The designers set their sights on the Ferrari 458’s frontal area and aerodynamics as the target to beat. This is why the new GT sits so low — it’s a direct result of Ford’s attempt to outdo the aerodynamic performance of its competitors in the FIA World Endurance championship.

The interior is tighter than an amusement park ride

When you do finally sit inside the GT, you realize how far Ford really went to optimize the weight of this car. The interior is tighter than a two-seater ride at an amusement park — all it’s missing is the lap bar. There was a surprising amount of headroom for my 6-foot-tall frame, though, which is thanks to the fact that the seats are bolted to the bottom of the monocoque. (You don’t move the seats to reach the wheel and pedals in the GT, you actually move the wheel and pedals.) This let the GT team further reduce the size and height of the cockpit, and it’s a sign of how far they were willing to go to do so.

The first thing that grabs you is the GT’s steering wheel, which makes the most button-laden video game controllers look modest. It’s home to the wipers, the blinkers, the washer fluid, the volume, the drive modes; there’s so much at the tips of your thumbs, but it somehow doesn’t feel like there’s too much going on. Ford says it’s modeled after a Formula One steering wheel, and I can see why. Even tapping the turn signal button made me feel a bit like I was opening up the DRS on a straightaway during a Grand Prix.

My favorite part of the GT’s interior, though, is the 10.1-inch digital instrument cluster. The display’s digital clock-style numbers give it just enough of a 1980s vibe without looking out of place on such a futuristic car. The animations are buttery fluid, the screen is sharp and bright, and it provides the only few splashes of color inside the car. The layout changes depending on the mode you’re driving in, too, and can be customized when to show everything from oil temperature to the fuel level.

The rest of the GT’s interior feels like an afterthought. So much of the car is part of a larger carbon fiber shell that helps with aerodynamics and weighting, and that includes the entire dash. This left the rest of the GT’s cockpit feeling pretty sparse. There is a 6.5-inch touchscreen in the center of the dash, though, which is where you can play around with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, or fuss with Ford’s SYNC 3.

Oh, and you get two cupholders.

Of course, when you hit the gas, all these details melt away. The GT’s ice-cold performance forces you to focus on the most necessary elements of the car’s driving experience. Take the slatted metal paddle shifters just behind the steering wheel, for instance. They’re sturdy as they are thin, and they spring forward with slight flicks from your knuckles — a simple movement that comfortably thwacks the car in and out of its seven gears. That feeling was so fulfilling I found myself constantly shifting while driving the GT down the arrow-straight roads of Utah’s Rush Valley and the scribbles that stretch across the foothills of the Stansbury Mountain Range.

As I dug deeper into the RPMs that the GT’s 3.5-liter V6 makes available, I discovered another source of joy: a series of LED lights embedded along the top of the steering wheel. It’s an almost hokey touch — especially because there’s already a beautiful, digital RPM hockey stick on the instrument cluster just inches behind the steering wheel. But it was just so damn fun to light up those LEDs that I didn’t care.  

One of the few sources of angst over the new GT since it was announced two years ago, though, is that engine and the noise it makes. (Or, maybe more accurately, the noises it doesn’t make.) Purist motorsports enthusiasts tend to like their cars loud. And on the roads you and I drive every day, I got a sense of why some fans might not be pleased with the GT’s engine noise. It hums at low RPMs in a way that reminded me of a BMW i8 — two cars that have nothing to do with each other in form or function.

Would a V8 sound better? Probably. But Svensson says the compactness of this engine let the design and engineering teams identify “voids” in the car that they could work around. That’s how they developed those aerodynamic (and frankly already iconic) holes on each side of the rear of the car. Basically, the Ford GT wouldn’t look as badass with a bigger engine.

The Ford GT wouldn’t look as badass with a bigger engine

Either way, the GT can attack a track like mad. After all, the car was literally made for the track. Ford built this GT to reclaim the racing prestige it once held. And that approach made for an incredibly precise supercar.  

The steering works off of the car’s hydraulic system, so the wheel translated my clumsy input smoothly and accurately. Where the GT350 Mustang — a pretty precise racer in its own right — tended to roll through the corners thanks to a softer suspension and higher ride height, the GT sliced into them. In video game parlance, driving the GT is like racing with the sensitivity ramped all the way up.

The GT’s power also made a profound impact on me. Every time I worked up the courage to push the throttle a little deeper, the car rewarded me with a new layer of speed. I could fly down the straights at over 100 miles per hour, stand on the brakes, and then dive into the corners, and the car was never unsettled. Where I felt I found some of the Mustang’s limits after multiple sessions with it, I barely saw a hint of what the GT had to offer.  

In fact, it was only when I climbed into the passenger seat for a lap with Joey Hand, one of the drivers who helped Ford win its class at Le Mans last year, that I witnessed the supercar’s true colors. And even then, as Hand squealed and stretched the tires through each turn, the GT still never felt like it was outmatched by him, the track, or the limits of the car’s engineering. You could probably literally measure the difference between what I was able to do with the GT and what it was really capable of, because Hand had us so nearly sideways that every one of my turns might as well have been straight.

Ford’s GT track app is one of the things it will hopefully bring to other cars

Photo by Wes Duenkel / Ford

The GT flourishes in other ways at the track. Twisting the drive mode knob on the steering wheel to the “track mode” sparks a flurry of activities: the digital display evolves, shifting the speedometer section to the side of the screen and replacing it with a bold gear indicator; the GT’s rear wing separated from the body and lifts up; and, most notably, the car lowers itself by about 50 millimeters.

I have a hard time imagining owning one of the new Ford GTs and keeping it off the track, even if the idea of ripping around one in something that costs a half a million dollars makes me a bit sick. And I think that’s likely one of the reasons Ford made it so hard to buy one of these cars in the first place — it wants to make sure they’re being bought by people who will use them and show them off, and it will alienate some of its most dedicated fans in order to pull that off.

While Ford might not yet have an owner’s program for the GT, it is shipping a new app with the supercar that will encourage owners to push their own limits. The app can map a track, log lap times, record footage using your phone (via Android Auto for now, with an iOS version to come), and overlay data from the car on that video. It’s similar to apps from MapMyRun or Strava, but with much more focus and polish. The app, like the GT’s digital display, is something fans of Ford Performance should expect to see come to other cars down the road. They should be excited by that, too, because it’s good.

Ford set out to do two things with the new GT. It wanted to sell a limited number to supercar fans, sure, but it also wanted to use this project to bring prestige back to the company’s performance wing. In that sense, the GT was basically a success before this launch even happened. Last year’s win at Le Mans justified all the money, the secrecy, and the work that went into creating the 2017 GT.

But that doesn’t take anything away from the stunning supercar that’s hitting the road now. The new GT is one of the most arresting cars of the last few years, thanks to its iconic style and boundless performance. Yes, it’s ludicrously expensive. Yes, the interior is cramped and comfortless. But will you care as much about those things when you’re heavy on the throttle? No.

The tragedy of the new GT is the same with most supercars: driving one is a dream, but owning one is a fantasy. What I took away from my short time with the GT — besides the shock to my nervous system — is that if you are ever lucky enough to come remotely near a chance to drive the car, do whatever you can to make that happen. Even if that means learning to drive all over again.

Edited by Tamara Warren

Photography by Sean O’Kane